March 20, 2019

Bench Notes
By Judge N. William Delker
NH Superior Court

“[L]eadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” This sage observation was among the remarks President John F. Kennedy was prepared to deliver on the day he died. Kennedy’s unspoken sentiment continues to resonate in the New Hampshire Bar Association Leadership Academy. Research indicates that individuals who exhibit the greatest versatility in their learned style also manifest the greatest flexibility in leadership when it comes to addressing complex problems. By exposing new lawyers to disciplines and experiences beyond the limits of their practice area, the Bar Association strives to develop future leaders both in the legal field and the broader community.

The Leadership Academy, which began in 2011, is currently midway through its sixth class. The educational experience starts with the backgrounds of the members of the 2018-2019 Academy class itself. The lawyers vary from associates at the state’s biggest firms to a solo practitioner; from transactional lawyers to litigators; and from in-house corporate counsel to public service and criminal justice attorneys.

In a word, the participants begin by making connections with other lawyers they would not ordinarily interact with in their day-to-day work.

During the program year, Academy members are exposed to modules focusing on business, public interest and nonprofit entities, the media, and all three branches of government and interacting one-on-one with leaders in each of these fields.

I was invited to participate this year as the liaison to the courts. For the judicial module, my goal was to pair each lawyer with a judge who could both deepen the experience of the lawyer in his or her practice area and also broaden the Academy member’s horizon. For the transactional lawyer who strives to keep her client out of litigation, seeing the inside of a courtroom in action is an important reminder of the pitfalls of inartfully drafted legal documents. For the litigator, the opportunity to sit at the right hand of a judge throughout the course of a busy day provides a perspective that few courtroom lawyers have the privilege of experiencing.

The lawyers who shadowed with me and other judges in Rockingham County Superior Court witnessed jury selection, sentencing arguments, motions practice, and a hearing involving two pro se parties arguing for a writ of replevin relating to the ownership of a dog. Immediately after each hearing we recessed to debrief.

During these sessions the Academy members asked insightful questions about what arguments were most effective and what tactics undermined a party’s case. We also discussed broader systemic issues, including the prevalence of self-represented litigants in the justice system and the impact of electronic filing on courtroom practice. As part of this and past Academy classes, I have hosted a number of lawyers. Each one has expressed surprise about how the perspective from behind the bench is so different from that of the advocate pressing a client’s case.

Each of the Academy modules culminates in a half-day round table discussion with leaders in the respective fields. For the judicial module, we gathered on January 10 at the federal court. The Academy members began by highlighting revelations they gained from the judge-shadowing experience. A common theme that echoed through many of the experiences was a recognition that a judge’s job is easier or harder depending on the quality of the advocacy. By viewing a case from the judge’s vantage point, the Academy members witnessed how a lawyer’s ability to explain the issue in clear terms was essential to effective advocacy.

The Academy members then had a rare opportunity to engage in an extended conversation with U.S. District Court Deputy Clerk Tracy Uhrin, Merrimack Superior Court Clerk Catherine Ruffle, and Sixth Circuit Court Clerk Terry McCafferty. Even many seasoned lawyers have only the vaguest inkling of what happens on a day-to-day basis behind the scenes in the clerk’s office.

Each of the clerks shared her professional journey to become the leader of her court. The Academy participants learned that, in addition to the obvious day-to-day flow of the courtroom, clerks are required to be knowledgeable about the law and legal procedure. They are also responsible for payroll, accounting, personnel, and all other aspects of office management. Because of the breadth of their responsibility, clerks of court embody “leadership through learning.”

The day culminated with a panel discussion featuring U.S. District Judge Joseph Laplante, retired Supreme Court Justice Carol Ann Conboy, Circuit Court Administrative Judge David King, and Superior Court Judge Amy Ignatius. As part of a wide-ranging discussion with the judges, the Academy members learned that there is no one path to a leadership role in the judiciary.

Justice Conboy explained her journey to the state’s high court by way of service in the Navy, teaching English, management at the McLane law firm, to Superior Court, and finally the Supreme Court. Growing up in Colebrook, Judge King described a much different path to leadership through community involvement with local non-profits, including the board of directors for a North Country hospital. Judge Ignatius charted her route through state government including as chair of the Public Utilities Commission. Judge Laplante described his approach to leadership by striving to learn something new every day.

By daily learning, lawyers become better at representing their clients. By excelling in the practice of law, attorneys naturally become recognized as leaders in their profession.

For many President Kennedy was one of the most inspiring leaders of the 20th Century. His recognition that learning is indispensable to leadership is a lesson that 2018-2019 NH Bar Association Leadership Academy class is in the process of experiencing. In two years, the next group will be inaugurated. It is never too early for new lawyers to aspire for leadership by preparing to make a commitment to join the next Leadership Academy class.